Photo by Niclas Moser on Unsplash

40 Steps

“When does the new tour start again?” Nicola Allen asked randomly.

“In a month. After this last bit of appearances, we’re coming home for a bit. Why?” her best friend Christopher Donaghy asked.

“‘Member, how you’re always asking me to come to visit?”

“Well, yeah.” He and Nicola had been best friends since high school. As the eldest member of Love Split Mystery, high school was a long time ago. He and Nicola had bonded over a mutual love of video games. Nicola was a professional game tester now, while Chris – AKA “C-Dawg” – was a band member, focusing his career on his second-most important obsession, music.

“I’ve got two weeks saved up, and I could use a vacation,” she finished her train of thought over the phone.

They never went a week without calling, emailing, or texting each other.

“Seriously?” asked Chris.

“Yeah!”

“You’re not gonna flake on me like last time, are you?” he said accusingly.

“Oh, like it was MY FAULT that my sister started bitching about money again!”

Up until two years ago – when Love Split Mystery was still promoting their sophomore release, “Year of the Tiger” – Nicola lived at home with her parents and her older sister, a single mother to her two nephews. She was in school and working at a paid internship at her current employer, Calamity Jane Games. Money was always tight.

Nicola socked away as much as she could for her trip to see him. She called him a week before she was supposed to fly out to Florida to meet them halfway through the tour to tell him it was off. Her sister got suspicious because Nicola owed her a lot of money and wondered where she had come up with all the money for the five-day trip. “To shut her up” (Nicola’s words), she gave whatever she had saved up for the trip to her sister to help out with the family’s bills that month.

Chris offered numerous times to help her out, knowing she would have a decent job when she finished school to pay him back. But, being the prideful animal she was, she refused.

“You’re gonna call me out on that?” teased Nicola.

“Yeah!”

“This coming from the guy who couldn’t tell his high school girlfriend he was breaking up with her in person!”

Chris cringed on the other end of the phone. “Ow. I deserved that.”

What she didn’t know was that the girl was jealous of his friendship with Nicola. The girl – he forgot her name now – gave him an ultimatum: her or Nicola. He chose Nicola and broke up with the girl in a text message.

“Damn right!”

* * *

One month later, Chris and his bandmate Randy went to O’Hare Airport in Chicago to meet Nicola. Lugging a duffel bag and wearing a backpack, a bleary-eyed Nicola threw a big smile at her best friend and hurled herself into his arms. They kissed each other on the cheek.

“Hii!” Nicola said, yawning as she pulled away to look at him.

Tucking a stray piece of her straight brown hair from her face, she took a good look at her best friend that she hadn’t seen in months. She hardly had time to see him in between work and family commitments when he came to town.

“Long flight?” asked Chris.

“Two stopovers. You know how I feel about flying. I had ‘Why Do I Keep Counting?’ by the Killers on permanent repeat!” Nicola said, shaking at the thought.

She was a jittery flier. They went to New York City as their senior graduation present from their families, and she forgot to take sleeping medicine to knock her out for most of the flight. So she spent a good hour politely harassing the other passengers for any form of legal medication to calm her down.

“Randy!” Nicola said, throwing herself at him.

“Hi Nic,” Randy said warmly.

From day one, Nicola had been the most vocal supporter of Love Split Mystery. She operated their merchandise table in the early days. As such, the band thought of her and Chris as a package deal. She was there for Derek when he and his longtime girlfriend, Ingrid, broke up six months ago. When Randy’s own father died, it was only natural to go to Nicola for support. She was a great listener and always said the right things, which were sometimes nothing at all.

“We’ve got this acoustic performance with a local radio station in an hour. So we better get going,” Chris said. “Any checked luggage?”

“Nope,” she said as Chris followed the exit signs so they could get out in one piece. “You should’ve heard my mom. She and my dad dropped me off so I wouldn’t have to worry about my car or anything. She saw how much I was bringing – which isn’t much, as you can tell – and she goes, ‘are you moving out?'”

“You are, though, aren’t you?” Randy queried.

“Yeah, I’m expecting a raise at my yearly review in a few months. I mean, I don’t expect a lot, but at least a cost of living increase. I can’t live in that house anymore. Plus, my sister is threatening to move out too, so I figure I’ll make a quick exit too.”

Randy hailed a cab for them, and they were off to WTAI as Chicago blurred past them.

“Be honest: what’s the next single? My friends back home have a pool going, and I told them I’d ask,” said Nicola.

“I think Austin said it was going to be ‘Stage Right,'” Randy offered.

“Really? I thought ‘Casino Mobster’ or ‘Fist Full of Love’ would’ve made stronger singles,” said Nicola.

“I told you about ‘Fist Full of Love,’ right? The label said ‘Fist Full of Love’ didn’t really fit the sound we had going for ‘Autumn Years.’ We had to fight so hard for it to be on the record, huh, Randy?” Chris explained. Randy nodded, and the three of them lapsed into silence to ponder this.

“Fist Full of Love” was one of the darkest songs on the album, and for Love Split Mystery. Co-written by Derek and Randy, it was written for Randy’s father, who passed away while they were on the “Radio Interference” tour.

It was a song about a guy on his deathbed, looking back on his life and how empty it was because his alcoholism had turned his family against him. He talked about all the things he had missed, all the grandchildren he hadn’t met, all the lovers who abandoned him because he preferred the bottle to their companionship.

Randy had been one of the more secretive band members about his personal life, so when the fans heard this song, many of them were apt to cry when they talked about it or heard live versions. So they decided to unveil it at a random stop on “Radio Interference,” and the fans loved it. Everyone had hoped it would end up “Autumn Years,” and they were amped when it did.

They arrived at the studio on time, and the three of them trooped inside so Love Split Mystery could perform an acoustic set of their biggest songs, “Presidential Silence,” “Security,” “The Red Dress Blues,” and their new single, “Stage Right,” which they confirmed on-air with the DJs.

* * *

Three sharp raps sounded, knocking the sleep from Nicola’s confused mind.

“Huh?” she yawned. She glanced at the clock on the nightstand nearby: 7 am. She peered at the other bed in the room. Chris and Randy were dead to the world. The label wouldn’t spring for a separate room for her, so she and Chris shared a double-bed room.

There were girls on tour, but they either had boyfriends (Stella from the Newsies was with Summers from Love Split Mystery), married (Katie and Liam from the Newsies), or she didn’t know them well enough to stay in their rooms (Maya from Abstract Theory and the Newsies’ tour manager, Cathy). She could either sleep on the bus or with the band, so Chris or Randy – the two to whom she was closest – usually shared a room with her.

“Get up!” their tour manager Austin’s muffled voice announced behind the closed hotel door.

The rest of the day was a blur. The “University Alumni” tour coincided with radio spirit shows and regional summer festivals, which Austin always worked with the label to book them on.

That night’s show in Virginia Beach was a radio spirit show. Armed with her backstage pass, Nicola saw the whole show, stepping back only to breathe and rest her ears from the loud music. During one of her breaks, she overheard Guy Montag – an indie rock band – complain about how their rider was half-assed. They were on after the Japanese Angels – a power-pop trio, and before Registered Voter – a local heavy metal band, on the bill. Bamboo Boomerang whined about how crappy catering was and the lack of proper facilities for all the acts.

“What a bunch of bitches,” Nicola announced as she came upon Love Split Mystery crammed into a nearby tent for their soundcheck.

“Who?” asked Derek mildly, tuning his guitar.

“Guy Montag and Bamboo Boomerang,” said Nicola as Derek put his guitar away to begin his vocal warm-ups.

“What were they complaining about?” Randy asked, teching his own guitar.

“Their riders, the food, the other artists on the bill, stuff like that.”

“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t bitch about that kind of stuff at shows like this,” Austin offered before answering his chirping cell phone.

“You guys don’t,” Nicola countered.

“We do,” Summers replied. “But we get over it. It’s part of the job. It’s either we do the spirit shows and get the word out on the album or fail at this and sell turtles at PetsMart.”

“Yeah. There’s good and bad with any job. Take it or leave it,” Randy finished up.

“Love Split Mystery, you’re up next,” a guy with a headset and clipboard said. He rushed away as soon as Austin answered for them. Nicola had become an unofficial roadie, so she helped Chris set up his drum kit just the way he wanted it.

“Hey Nicola,” Mike Range said.

“Hey, Mikey!” Nicola said warmly, stopping to talk. Mike was the bassist for Abstract Theory, one of Love Split’s opening acts on the “University Alumni” tour.

“Hey,” Maya, their synth player, said.

Xavier was on his cell phone but smiled at added, “Hey Nicola.”

Her heart skipped a beat when he did. “Sorry I missed your show earlier,” said Nicola.

“It’s cool,” their guitarist Mitchell said. There were three stages set up for everyone, and Abstract Theory was one of the smaller stages, whilst Kitty Silver – a band Nicola was looking forward to seeing – was playing the main stage at the same time.

“See you later!” Nicola said, taking her to leave. “Gotta help C-Dawg and all.”

“Hey Nic,” Xavier said, stopping her as he snapped his cell phone shut. “There’s a house party nearby. Bunch of us are going? You in?”

“Sure!”

“Great. Tell the guys, okay? We’ll call you.”

* * *

Nearly everyone on the University Alumni tour – bands and their crew – descended on the party. It was on a local college campus, and the beers flowed freely. A few fans scattered throughout the property, so camera phones were snapping low-quality photos left and right.

Nicola walked outside with Chris to survey the pool scene. She kicked her sandals off in the nearby grass to soak her bare legs in the pool.

“You know what this reminds me of?” baited Nicola.

“Lacey Meadows’ party junior year,” Chris replied immediately.

“Yes!” Nicola hooted.

They laughed as she and Chris began to recall the party that went down in history in their class.

“George from my math class drank so much he puked in Lacey’s mom’s rhododendron bushes in the back.”

“Stephen from JV soccer got caught with Helen Johnson in the downstairs bathroom, even though she was going out with Paul from the varsity team.”

“Lacey got nicknamed ‘Racey Lacey’ that night too, ’cause she scored with like, four guys on her parents’ bed. Or so they say. She didn’t confirm nor deny even after graduation.”

“Oh my god! I talked to her the other day,” Nicola said.

“Oh yeah? What’s she been up to since high school?”

“She got married and had a baby. And she works in a bank. Oh, and she said to say hi. She’s a big fan of the band.”

“Wow, that’s so fascinating!” Xavier said semi-sarcastically, plunking down beside Nicola. “Hey, C-Dawg. What were you guys talking about?” he continued, resting his arm around Nicola’s shoulders.

“We were talking about a party like this that we went to in high school,” offered Nicola, leaning into him ever so slightly.

“Did nerds go to parties?” Xavier teased. It was no secret that Chris and Nicola were considered geeks among their friends.

“Only the cool ones,” Chris said defensively but jokingly.

“Well, when you find a cool nerd, let me know. They deserve a swirly,” Xavier said, leaning over to kiss Nicola on the neck. He pushed Chris affectionately again before moving on.

Chris looked at her for a moment after Xavier left before taking another swallow of beer.

“What?” she asked innocently as she took a gulp.

“What was THAT about?” Chris said, taking another swallow for good measure.

“Nothing. Xavier and I are friends,” Nicola said.

Chris paused. “Well, when you put it like that… is there something going on between you two?” he asked carefully.

“No. What makes you say that?” Nicola said just as carefully.

The truth of the matter was she had been sleeping with Xavier for a while now. There had always been a sexual undertone to her flirting with Xavier, even before this vacation. But, this time, she decided to act on it. She hadn’t slept with anyone since her ex-boyfriend Paul almost three months ago. She was a desert, as far as she was concerned. Besides, what did she have to lose, really? She told him that she didn’t want anything more than this vacation.

Once she went home, they would go back to being friends, so there wouldn’t be anything weird between them. She also knew that Xavier and Chris had become good friends since Abstract Theory was a frequent opener for Love Split on their national tours. And Xavier agreed. So what did she have to lose? She felt weird lying to Chris like that, but knowing him, he would obsess over it, and it would get weird between him and Xavier, which was something she didn’t want.

* * *

Nicola stared blankly at the setup for Rockstar Games at Comic-Con. She couldn’t concentrate. She had returned from a visit with Chris scatterbrained more than usual. As she predicted, she was given a cost of living increase and began to search for a condo since she didn’t think she was quite ready for a house on her own, and she didn’t like the idea of an apartment.

Her flamboyant co-worker, Roger, was a professional gamer. In fact, Calamity Jane sponsored him in tournaments for video games, as long as he wore the company logo on everything that people would see him in. His nickname was “Hollywood” since he grew up in West Hollywood with his father and partner.

“What’s wrong?” he said melodramatically, looking deeply into her eyes.

“I feel like seeing my breakfast again,” she said, placing a hand over her mouth.

The playful smile faded from Roger’s face in an instant. He wrapped his arm around Nicola to support her and yelled at the other Calamity Jane co-workers who were at the event, “Be right back, boys!”

Nicola didn’t know what was going on, but Roger had led her to the women’s bathroom.

“Hey!” a girl squawked as Roger entered with the ashen-faced Nicola.

“This is an emergency,” Roger replied.

Nicola practically fell into the first available stall and emptied the contents of her stomach into the porcelain bowl. The girl quickly introduced herself as Heather – and Roger cringed as another nauseous wave took Nicola over.

“Damn,” Roger said, shaking his head and looking away.

“Let me go see if I can find a club soda,” Heather offered. “Hold her hair back,” she instructed Roger.

Roger did as he was told until there was nothing left for Nicola to expend. Heather came back a few minutes later, holding a club soda with a straw sticking up out of the can.

“I can’t,” Nicola said, another wave of nausea racking her body at the very sight of sustenance.

“Trust me; it’ll help settle your stomach,” Heather said. “It should be flat by now. I opened it as soon as I could.”

Nicola looked at Roger weakly, and he nodded. Nicola took the proffered can and sipped slowly through the straw. Roger leaned over and activated the automatic flush system.

“You’re not pregnant, are you?” asked Heather innocently.

Nicola looked up at her, much too weak to look shocked. Come to think of it; she hadn’t had her period for almost a month, only spotting. It had been a super stressful few months in her life, what with the raise and the testing for a rival company she was doing on the side, and her sister was already moving out. Her periods always stopped when she was stressed. She didn’t even think about pregnancy.

* * *

“Congratulations, Miss Allen. You’re pregnant,” Dr. Williford announced happily.

Though she was on company time, Nicola went to the nearest drugstore to pick up a home pregnancy test, which came up positive. There were two in the box, so she took that one too. Also positive. She booked an appointment with Dr. Williford for the day she got home. And as she feared, Heather’s keen observation was correct.

Williford sent her home with literature and an appointment to begin prenatal care.

Her mom – who knew everything going on in her life – took one look at her and knew immediately. She was standing at the kitchen sink when Nicola got home. Without a word, her mom wiped her hands dry on a towel and embraced her youngest daughter.

“Mom, I don’t know what to do,” Nicola said. She was still in shock and couldn’t bring herself to cry.

“It’ll be okay,” her mom counseled. “Who’s the father? Chris?”

Nicola pulled away to look at her mom oddly.

“I just thought, since you and Chris have been friends forever and your last trip out to see him…” her mom’s voice trailed off.

“Mom, that’s stupid. Chris is my best friend, my brother, even. That’d just be weird. The only guy I’ve slept with within the last few months was Xavier, and the doctor said I’m about two and a half months along, just by his prediction. After that, he said he would run more tests.”

“Does this Xavier boy know? Who is he?”

“He’s in a band, Abstract Theory. No, I was just about to call him. They’re still on tour.”

* * *

Nicola called Xavier first because he had to know. She was afraid of his reaction, but he was cool with it. He offered to pay child support, but because Nicola had laid down the law that first night, they had said their goodbyes as friends. A baby didn’t change that, and that was something they mutually agreed on. She didn’t love Xavier, and she didn’t want to force anything like that.

When Nicola called Chris to break the news, she got his voicemail. So she told him to call her as soon as possible.

Derek dragged him to an after-party a local club was going to hold for them. He called her en route.

“Nic?” he began. “I got your message. What’s up?”

It was then that Nicola allowed herself to cry. The last time he spoke to her, she was happy about her trip to Comic-Con on the company’s dime. Then, she began to sob quietly over the phone.

“Chris, I’m pregnant.”

The world stopped spinning for a moment as he digested her announcement.

“It’s Xavier’s, right.” A statement, not a question.

“Yes.”

He wasn’t sure what he was feeling, but it felt like a piano had dropped on his head. Years ago, when he and Nicola were still in high school, they had gotten a little tipsy on some Grey Goose his parents had left out after a party. Then, on the trampoline in his backyard, they both promised each other that if the other one weren’t married by the time they were thirty, they would marry each other. Plus, she would have their firstborn. It seemed a little silly to think about that since he wasn’t even sure they would be friends this long, but the memory had popped into his head when Grey Goose was served at a recent after-party.

Now, she was pregnant with his best friend’s baby, and he felt the world crumble around him. He had been in love with Nicola when he met her but didn’t want to ruin their friendship by asking her out properly. So when she geeked out about video games with him in math class, he knew she was the one for him.

“Say something,” she said softly.

“What do you want me to say?” he asked.

“I don’t know!”

“Look, I’ll call you later, okay? I have some things I need to think about.”

“Chris, please,” she began as he silently pressed the end call button.

Derek took one look at his face and leaned over the backseat to the taxi driver. “Can you drive us back to our hotel, please?”

The driver quickly made a u-turn at the next open corner. Derek turned to look at his bandmate. “What’s going on?”

“Nicola’s pregnant with X’s baby.”

Derek looked away to soak up the news. Of course, everyone knew that Chris was madly in love with Nicola. But, unfortunately, it seemed like the only person who didn’t know was Nicola.

* * *

The pregnancy was smooth sailing. Nicola found a two-bedroom condo in her hometown and decorated it just like she wanted it, with a distinct wild animal theme. Xavier visited and called frequently and got back together with his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Madeline.

Nicola’s job title evolved to the point where she could work efficiently from home, so she raised the baby pretty much on her own. She was hesitant to start dating again because she had seen the effects of men coming and going out of her girlfriend Mary’s life. Mary had a baby girl two years older than her son, and her little girl already had attachment issues. Nicola didn’t want that.

Chris was at a loss. He avoided Nicola as much as he could, and because of it, their relationship became strained. The guys called him out on it during her pregnancy. But whenever they mentioned Nicola, Chris simply shut down. Nicola didn’t force it either. She had too much on her mind to ask why her best friend for over ten years was avoiding her.

They didn’t see each other again until almost a year after the baby was born, a boy named Ethan Xavier Torres. It was Chris’ mom’s birthday. Nedra Donaghy was always close to Nicola and was always there in a pinch if Nicola needed a sitter, and her family couldn’t help out.

In the middle of the Passive Aggressive tour, Nedra threw a party for her 52nd birthday. It was in full swing when the doorbell rang. Springing up from the kitchen chair he was sitting in, Chris announced, “I’ll get it.”

Nicola saw the shape of someone answering the door and held Ethan tightly. But, unfortunately, he was getting antsy and stayed awake the whole car ride up. She had hoped he would take a little nap before they got to the Donaghys’ but no such luck.

Chris threw open the door, and for a moment, believed he had stopped breathing. Nicola locked eyes with him and said nothing until Ethan broke the spell between them with a grunt.

“Come in,” Chris said, almost robotically. He held the door open for them.

“Thanks,” Nicola said quietly. She adjusted the baby bag on her shoulder and walked inside.

“Nicola! Ethan!” Nedra announced, peeking around the corner.

Ethan began straining for Nedra, and Nicola obliged. Nedra scooped him up and kissed the unstable walker before putting him back down to putter around. Ethan tried to catch up with Nedra’s grandchildren, who were just about his age, and treated him like one of them already.

“We’re not late, are we?” Nicola asked.

“Not at all!” Nedra said warmly. She eyed her second born, tall and uncomfortable and just like his father in situations like this, frozen at the door. “Chris! Help your dad with the barbecue, will you?”

Chris closed the door and obediently followed his mom’s instructions.

* * *

Nicola walked into Chris’s old room, a shrine his mom and sisters made for Love Split Mystery. He had long since moved out on his own. Posters, photographs, newspaper and magazine clippings, fan letters, fan scrapbooks, and old instruments flooded the room. Six years’ worth of memorabilia was in that room, and sometimes Nicola would go in there once she took care of Ethan.

She fingered the framed black and white photograph Alana had taken and smiled to herself. A professional photographer, Alana was Chris’s eldest sister and their official tour photographer. Alana had taken a picture of her, Chris, and Randy walking backstage at a venue in Texas, and she tried to remember. She hadn’t seen it in a while and must have been put on the shelf recently. It was right after the show, and you could see the smile of pride on her face, with Chris’ sweaty arm protectively around her, and Randy had the biggest smile on his own face.

Chris’s favorite uncle, his dad’s younger brother, Max, had spent most of the party urging him to play a song. Even though he was the drummer in Love Split, Chris had originally been trained in piano and guitar. He chose drums for the band because they didn’t have a drummer when he joined. Pretty much all of his drumming skills were self-taught, though he did take some drumming lessons on the side occasionally. His favorite acoustic guitar, Lucille, was in his old room; he was sure of it.

Nicola jumped when the door to the room opened. Her mouth went dry when she realized it was Chris.

“Oh hey,” he stuttered. “I didn’t think anyone was here.”

“Sorry, I just came up here to clear my head. But, unfortunately, I got overwhelmed by the party,” Nicola replied. “I’ll go.”

“No, stay. I just need to get Lucille really quick. Max is about to start throwing shit if I don’t do a song,” Chris explained. He looked around. “Uh, did they move stuff while I was gone? I thought I left her on the bed.”

“In the guitar case by the window,” she offered.

Chris spotted Lucille’s case in the precise location. “Thanks.”

“No problem,” she replied. “I was messing with it the other day, making sure it was still in tune.”

Chris nodded politely and left the room.

* * *

The party gathered in the living room, where Chris was tuning Lucille. “Thanks to everyone who came out tonight for my ma,” he said. Everyone cheered. His dad had set up a camera and had aimed it carefully at his son.

“Play ‘Red Dress Blues’!” his cousin Kerry said. “That’s like, my fave Love Split song.”

“Nooo, do ‘Reject of My Affection’!” Gerard, Max’s son, replied.

“Oldie but a goodie,” Max agreed.

Nicola stood in the back of the room quietly, eyeballing Ethan while trying to remain in the shadows.

“Actually, ‘Beautiful’ is my mom’s favorite Love Split song, but I’d like to perform a work in progress for everyone,” Chris said.

And that night, he unveiled the acoustic version of a new Love Split song, “Past, Present, and Future.” It was a song about a guy who had drifted apart from “the one good thing in his life ” because he wasn’t ready for the changes their relationship was taking. Everyone in the room knew immediately it was for Nicola.

The best part of the performance was Ethan toddling up to Chris and using his knees as a way to stand up and watch him and his fingers up close. Everyone burst out laughing, but Chris – a consummate professional – continued playing. To which he got resounding applause.

“That’s going on YouTube!” his dad Phil announced happily, pressing the stop button on his recording of the performance.

Everyone went up to congratulate him as he put Lucille away and picked up Ethan. He had been around babies for a long time, and holding him was instinctive. He supported his back and looked into his eyes. He had Xavier’s dark hair and eyes, but he saw a lot of Nicola in him. When he tickled Ethan, who smiled happily in response, he saw Nicola smiling back at him.

The crowd dispersed to enjoy the rest of the party, but Nicola resolutely walked up to him and said, “You’re good with him.”

“Yeah, I think so,” Chris said, as Ethan squirmed in his big hands.

“The song,” Nicola began.

“Goes without saying, Nic,” Chris replied quietly, well below the din of the room.

Nicola sighed. “Why didn’t you just tell me how you felt? How come you weren’t there when I needed you?”

“What am I supposed to say? My best girlfriend has a baby with my best guy friend, and I’m just supposed to be okay with it?”

“I never said that. You could’ve just said, ‘I don’t like the fact that you have Xavier’s baby, but it’s your life, and I’m going to support you, no matter what’ or something!”

Chris handed Ethan over. “I’m not going to talk about this right now,” he said, leaving the room.

Nicola held onto Ethan tightly, willing herself not to cry in front of the Donaghys’ friends and family.

Nedra placed a hand on her arm. “Give me the baby,” she demanded gently. “Do what you know is right.”

Nicola nodded and surrendered her cooing baby to Nedra. Sadly, she followed Chris upstairs.

* * *

Chris sat on his childhood bed, breathing hard. He looked around the room and wondered how often he had dreamt of what his life was going to be and how he would be a famous rock star. How he was going to have the perfect family, just like the one he had grown up with. Nicola was part of those plans. But he stopped himself and never made a move.

How many girls had he not allowed himself to fall for because he was hesitant to go further? He wanted to be available to Nicola no matter what, even if it meant seeing her with some other guy. He was always ashamed of what he was willing to lose to keep her happy.

“Chris?” Nicola’s voice echoed down the hall.

“In here,” he found himself saying.

Nicola opened the door and stood over him.

“I already said what I had to say or sang it anyway,” Chris said.

Nicola sat down beside him on the bed, and they sat silently for a few minutes.

“I don’t want to say the wrong thing,” Chris said softly. It took him a while to say the words he was desperate to say.

“I love you. I don’t know how else to explain it. I’ve always loved you and will always love you.” Nicola opened her mouth to speak, but he reached out to touch her hand to silence whatever she would say. “Wait, let me finish. I don’t want to say that I wish you hadn’t slept with Xavier. But I want to be a part of you and Ethan’s life for as long as humanly possible.”

Nicola sighed as if it had lifted a great weight from her shoulders. “I love you too. Do you know how long I’ve been waiting to hear you say that? No matter what happens, I will follow you anywhere.”

They finally looked into each other’s eyes. Chris saw his future, and Nicola knew she was home.

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